Fun is one of the most powerful things in the world. I would even go as far to say that it is as important to our survival as air, food and water. Because of the mere promise of fun we try new things, go new places, and meet new people. It’s the map to how most us become the delinquent cog in the worldly machine that we are. And the best thing about it; it’s easy. If you go out truly trying to have fun, despite any circumstances, you will. It was the faint whiff of fun that set off a mountain bike exploration trip to Nicaragua. Let’s set the table.
In 2015, freeride master Kurt Sorge stumbled over a few pictures of volcanoes in the paradises of Java and Bali that reminded him of his favorite dirt in southwest Utah. After dredging the Internet for more pictures, Kurt saw potential in the terrain and booked a flight to Bali with his bike. Just prior to leaving home, Kurt learned that the volcano he had identified was erupting. Armed with little information on the extent of the eruption and non-refundable tickets, him and his crew decided to stay the course and see what they could get.
To Kurt, the trip acted as a learning experience: “What we were able to ride was cool and gave me a glimpse of what the potential of these phenomena boiling below the Earth’s crust.”
The fire was lit and Kurt immediately began planning another strike to a destination yet unknown. With the volcano understanding he now had coupled with his unparalleled riding knowledge, he began to develop a list of countries that had potential for good terrain.
He focused on areas that were littered with big open-faced volcanoes wrapped in the same material he found in Bali and Java. More volcanoes, more options. Kurt was looking to gamble but wanted to make sure the odds were in his favor. Those parameters led him to Central America and more specifically, Nicaragua.
Nicaragua has long been on the radar for good surf. It’s proximity to Costa Rica means that Nicaraguans enjoy the same endless supply of warm water waves and a constant offshore breeze thanks to a massive inland freshwater lake. Amongst other things, the country is home to 19 volcanoes. So, even with the speed dating odds, Kurt was bound to find a keeper.
Driving back from Virgin, Utah after winning his 3rd Red Bull Rampage, Kurt realized he had about a day to come up with a plan. He pulled into his driveway, unpacked and after negotiating a bit of shelf space for his newest trophy, began to work his way through his list and plan the trip.
The week before at Rampage, he spoke to longtime friends Kyle Jameson and Nico Vink about the idea. Both were keen. Not sure who these two are? See: the FEST Series.
After giving both guys just enough time to unpack from Rampage, Kurt followed up. They were still frothing to see what Nicaragua had to offer so they repacked everything and booked flights south.
It was the middle of November when the trio arrived in Nicaragua’s capital Managua. Built along the south shore of Lake Managua, it is the country’s biggest city with a population of 1.4 million. Through the van window, we could see that Managua was the beating heart of the Nicaraguan culture.
Our plan was to drive north from Managua to León only to trickle back south all the way to the island of Ometepe to scour one volcano after another. Side note on driving in Nicaragua from an American perspective; it’s scary.
So after a thrilling two-hour drive from the capital, we arrived in León, our base camp for what turned out to be the majority of the trip. For our first day on the ground we planned to stretch our legs on a nearby peak, Cerro Negro.
Since 1850, the volcano has erupted 23 times. Each eruption dusted the slope with a fine layer of sand-like pumice creating a soft and inviting surface that the riders felt like they were floating over. The material felt like riding on a cloud but could also hold a turn.
For the first day of riding, we were a man down. Nico was left in Houston for the night because of a delayed flight, so Kurt and Kyle unloaded and began their hike to the top, next to a family from Oklahoma and a newlywed couple from Germany. At a moderate pace, the hike takes 45 minutes. So by early afternoon we were on top of our first volcano and the crew took a moment to revel in the view.
With what was to be the first of many crisp high fives, Kurt dropped and Kyle chased him down the hill while the hooting and hollering echoed across the valley floor. Cerro Negro delivered. The two rode until dark, drawing fast big mountain turns down the face of the volcano only to turn around and race back up the hiking trail.
The next morning we opted to get up early as we had a big mission planned, Volcán San Cristóbal, the highest volcano in Nicaragua at 1,745m. Nico had finally arrived late the night before and was ready to go.
What we hadn’t planned for was the approach. Once off the main road, the access roads to San Cristóbal were littered with massive rocks and water ruts. The conditions didn’t affect the usual traffic of horseback and dirt bike riders but slapped our tiny van right across the face. The two-hour approach brought a high centered symphony of scraping and grinding noises from the bottom of the car. Somehow, we arrived at the base of the mountain with all fluids and van parts intact.
By the time we slid into the base of San Cristóbal, it was about 1:00pm. It was late, but after being in the van most of the day the consensus was to push as far as we could up the volcano and see what we could get. The first hour of the hike dripped off the clock as fast as the churrasco steak from dinner the night before dripped out of our pores.
It took us almost an hour and a half to get out above the treeline to see what San Cristóbal had in store for us. From our vantage point, the open face looked eerie. Toasted tree branches and debris polka-dotted the grey sand. We marched on, following water ruts that were shoulder deep as the sand began to get deeper and more challenging. Sections would transition from hard pack to deep soft sluff without any visual clues.
About three quarters of the way up, the guys decided to kit up and drop. Kyle lined a more flowy line down what can loosely be described as a trail, while Nico decided to save some of his arm strength by not turning and point it straight down the hill.
Up top on his own, watching his friends ride got Kurt frothing. The conditions weren’t as great as Cerro Negro but after seeing Nico’s line it was clear to Kurt that the face was rideable. Wanting fresh tracks, he took a line straight through the switchbacks of the hiking trail. He was just starting to get playful when his front wheel dug into a patch of sluff he didn’t see. In an instant he was tossed over the bars, straight to his back. Before the shock hit, he quickly popped up to try and walk it off, but the muscles in his lower back only clenched tighter. What seemed to be a hard, but not terrible, pancake toss quickly demanded real attention as Kurt’s lower back started to lock up.
Kurt was still riding with binoculars in his backpack. When he was flung over the bars, one of the cylinders positioned perfectly to slide between his rib cage and hipbone. We had no way of knowing what was going on internally but from the muscle reaction alone we knew we had to get Kurt out of there.
Kyle and Nico helped Kurt get himself back down the mountain while the rest of the crew quickly packed up their gear and raced down behind them. Back at the hotel, Kurt went straight to bed to take pressure off his lower back. The mood was slightly melancholy amongst our group that night, but we had more work to do.
The next morning we were off to attempt the third volcano on the trip, Telica, a volcano just outside of León that last erupted in 2015. We left our fallen brother at the hotel with a television that he couldn’t understand and the phone number to a doctor friend of ours in case anything got worse.
Telica didn’t pan out. The rocky face that we could see from the base reminded us too much of our experience on San Cristobal. To bring this trip back to it’s ethos and partially wash off the shitiness of the previous day we decided to let Kyle play tour guide to Nico on Cerro Negro. It was the right choice: smiles started to return as soon as we pulled into the parking lot.
The two made quick work of the hike, and soon two jerseys peaked over the ridgeline. Kyle dropped right behind Nico so that he could film his christening run. There is a thing about Nico: he has zero problem with speed. He guards against using turns like a cat guards against using its nine lives. So on this run he generously gave two turns and then pointed it straight. The afternoon of hotlaps and dodging tourists ended in the highlight of a supermoon. We were back on track.
Rested, and well lubricated from a rest day at Flor De Caña rum distillery, we made way to the most intimidating volcano of the trip, Momotombo. A week before flying down, we stumbled across a few aerial photos of this open-faced behemoth. It was more reminiscent of the snow-covered faces that ski and snowboard trips search out. But this was covered in fine black pumice. Expectations were high.
Two years prior, Momotombo erupted. Really erupted. On our drive in, past a locked gate with armed guards, what we thought were clouds clinging to the top of the volcano turned out to be thick sulfur smoke that it spews out daily.
Most of the hikes on the trip involved climbing blindly through thick vegetation until we reached the top. This one started no different, but this time, at treeline where all life pulls back, the day became clear and we saw that Momotombo was the best yet.
Nico and Kyle went insane running from ridge to ridge in disbelief at how much was there. Rolling ridges and consistent ground material made the whole volcano a playground. At speed, the sharp and unforgiving pumice pebbles could hold a turn, but felt floaty. What we got was long flowy carves like they were riding fresh powder snow.
We had finally found exactly what we came for. The surface was so good and so massive that we ditched the whole second half of our trip to the southern part of the country. We were going to stay right here and milk it for all it was worth.
Kurt came over right after dinner as the photos and videos from the day began circulating. It sucked, we all came here together wanting the same thing and Kurt missed out because of a stupid crash.
He was still a stiff kitty. The days of rest helped him a little bit but it was apparent by his posture and movement that he was far from 100 percent. With each video clip he watched and each story he heard, Kurt would try to stretch his lower back a little further. The whole crew was ecstatic when he said he would come up the next day to watch Nico and Kyle revisit the promised land.
Early the next morning, we pulled up to Kurt’s hotel to see him waiting on the steps accompanied by his bike. We all knew it would be painful for him and he wouldn’t be in his top form but it didn’t matter. We planned the trip based on a dream, we came to Nicaragua as a team, and on the last riding day of the trip we would visit exactly what we had hoped to find.